heart and soul image

By Melinda Welsh

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This essay was published on 02.08.07.

Heart and soul

Take-home lessons from hanging out in a local bar with Molly Ivins

 February 23, 1995. It had already been a long day for Molly Ivins. She’d flown into town from Texas and was scheduled to speak that night as part of the UC Davis Distinguished Speaker Series. She’d spent the day in classrooms chatting with faculty and students, appeared as the featured guest at a formal dinner that evening with the chancellor, and, finally, at 8 p.m., given a rousing speech—her call to a passionate populism—to a sold-out Freeborn Hall.

Molly was on fire that night, an inspiration.

But her day wasn’t over; we hadn’t yet made it to the bar.

OK, back up a second. My husband, Dave Webb, then marketing director at UC Davis Presents (now Mondavi Center), had volunteered to drive Molly to and from her destinations throughout the day. (For some reason, he hadn’t offered to do the same for Dick Cheney when he’d appeared as a UCD Distinguished Speaker the month before.) When Molly learned that Dave was married to the editor of SN&R—well, that was it. We three were heading to the nearest bar after her speech.

Molly must have been exhausted from her long day, but she didn’t show it. (At one point, Dave remembers her opening the hotel-room door in her bathrobe, hustling him in amid piles of newspapers and magazines she’d strewn around the place, commencing to type feverishly into her laptop. On top of everything else she had scheduled during her visit to Davis, she was on deadline for her column.)

We took a table near the door at Café California (now Aioli in Davis) at around 11 p.m. and she proceeded to buy rounds of Heinekens (“I’m the mainstream one here tonight! Always make the mainstream pay!”), and regale us with stories from her early days muckraking at the Texas Observer. She grilled me for information about the then state of the alternative media in the country. She extracted personal gossip about some of the more, well, eccentric alt-weekly publishers and editors she happened to know. She lamented with us about the threat of media conglomeration, the continued plight of the poor and the general state of the country (though, in retrospect, American circa 1995 doesn’t look all that bad.)

Others at the bar—even people who didn’t recognize her—were constantly turning their heads to see what all the commotion was about. It was just three of us sitting at a table talking, but Molly’s volume, her bellowing laugh and that Texas twang, had made us a magnet for attention. As Molly’s friend Jim Hightower has said, “It was her spirit coming at you.”

Eventually, we wrapped up the evening and drove an exhausted Molly back to the hotel.

By now, everyone has read of her sad death last week, at age 62, from what she called a “scorching case” of cancer. They’ve been reminded of her irrepressible spirit and wildly successful career as a newspaper columnist. And they’ve heard her list of loves: the Bill of Rights, investigative journalism, the Texas Observer, democracy, political underdogs and (as Hightower has said) “the merry combination of good friends, good drink and good fun.”

Her last column, dictated a few weeks before her death because the cancer had so weakened her, was titled “Stand Up Against the Surge.” It was another one urging the American people to end the war and take back the country. “The president of the United States does not have the sense God gave a duck,” she wrote in a previous column. “So it’s up to us.”

I read her last column and thought back to that night long ago in the bar and remembered her indomitable presence, her wonderful laugh and the unsolicited life advice she offered to me and Dave:

“Do what you love,” she said.